Now that the Supreme Court has found a constitutional right to marry for same-sex couples, it seems logical that the parallel national debate over same-sex parenting might also be over. After all, the two issues were proxies for each other. Social conservatives had argued that marriage equality would increase the number of motherless or fatherless households, a climate they argued was bad for kids. Once gay and lesbian couples could marry — strengthening their parental ties — their opponents would seem to have less room to challenge their right to be parents.
Yet the battle continues. In Utah last month, a judge ordered a baby girl removed from her foster home because the couple parenting her were lesbians. (He later rescinded the order and passed the case to another judge.) In Kansas, conservative state senators are pushing a bill to pay straight — but not gay — couples to be foster parents. In Texas and Alabama, state authorities are refusing to allow or recognize some adoptions by gays and lesbians. And in Nebraska and Mississippi, advocates were forced to mount court challenges to undo laws restricting the ability of same-sex couples to adopt or foster.
One of the primary justifications invoked for limiting gay parental rights is “science.” In Utah, Judge Scott Johansen's initial order referred to social science research showing that children do better with a mom and a dad than with same-sex parents. In Kansas, state Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, a Republican who opposes gay marriage, explained her objections to same-sex foster parents this way: “It's too bad that these children have become the subject of political correctness instead of looking at the scientific evidence.”
But a closer look shows that what is being cited as “science” in these situations is anything but. In fact, flawed scholarship is being used as a smokescreen to create the illusion of legitimate debate where none exists.
A team I direct at Columbia Law School's What We Know Project has undertaken the largest review of same-sex parenting literature to date. We have identified 77 studies that address the well-being of children with gay or lesbian parents. Seventy-three of them find that such children face no disadvantages from having gay or lesbian parents. The studies used a wide range of methodologies, many relying on small sampling pools but some on nationally representative data. The aggregate result is an overwhelming scholarly consensus that having a gay parent causes no harm, one reason that every major professional organization that deals with child welfare opposes discriminating against LGBT families.
As to the outlier studies, all share the same fatal flaw. At most a handful of the children who were studied were actually raised by same-sex parents; the rest came from families in which one parent was gay or had a same-sex encounter, families that had endured great stress and often split apart. So in the end, the outlier studies don't tell us anything about same-sex parenting; they just tell us what's long been known: Family stress and disruption are bad for kids, while stable ties are good for them.
In 2014, the outlier research was presented in court in defense of Michigan's ban on same-sex marriage. Federal Judge Bernard A. Friedman wasn't buying it. He singled out Mark Regnerus, a sociologist from the University of Texas and one of the outlier researchers, for a scalding rebuke. Evidence had been presented that Regnerus' research was not only underwritten by a group opposed to same-sex marriage, but that close collaboration between funder and researcher had undercut its scholarly independence: “The funder clearly wanted a
specific result and Regnerus obliged,” wrote Friedman in overturning the Michigan ban (the suit was one of the cases heard by the Supreme Court that led to this summer's momentous decision). In all, said Friedman, he couldn't accord “any significant weight” to the testimony of the four experts citing research that said gay marriage and parenting were bad for children.
By all appearances, the authors of the outlier studies are substituting ideological beliefs for scientific accuracy. During the Michigan trial, Regnerus acknowledged that his religious belief shaped his research, and another of the experts, Canadian economist Douglas Allen, acknowledged that he believed unrepentant gays were going to hell.
The fundamental questions about the effect of same-sex parenting are resolved, just like the legal battle over same-sex marriage. When a judge in Utah or legislators in Kansas ignore solid scholarship and cite flawed research instead, it's nothing but a rear-guard attack, a quest to block or roll back LGBT progress. For some conservatives, the end of the debate just creates more reason to fight, even if it means weakening ties between parents and their children.
Nathaniel Frank is the director of the What We Know Project at Columbia Law School. He is completing a book on the history of the marriage equality fight.